The Avant-Folk Goddess is Back: Joanna Newsom returns with “Divers”

Oct. 27, 2015, 5:36 p.m.
Indie-folk songstress Joanna Newsom. (Courtesy of Daniel Arnold)
Indie-folk songstress Joanna Newsom. (Courtesy of Daniel Arnold)

Joanna Newsom has built a reputation for herself among a niche group of listeners who enjoy literary avant-folk and who don’t cringe at the un-ironic use of the word “thee.” Between her use of the harp, her beautiful but complex lyricism and her uninhibited creativity, Joanna Newsom’s music can be daunting for the uninitiated. (Her longest song is about 17 minutes long, and her last album “Have One On Me” is a two-and-a-half-hour triple LP.) But when met with open-mindedness, Joanna Newsom reveals herself to be one of the most creative songwriters out there.

Her new album “Divers,” her first in five years, might serve as the ideal introduction. Musically, the album possesses her most accessible beauty to date. Harp, string and piano arrangements as well as her winding, circuitous vocal melodies create a sense of beauty, grandeur and emotional resonance that is a joy to listen to. Plus, unlike “Have One On Me,” this one’s around the 52-minute mark, and the longest song is a mere seven minutes. Compared to the 17-minute opus that was “Only Skin,” the seven-minute title track “Divers” is a breeze.

Here’s the thing: Song lengths aside, Newsom’s music is and always will be lyrically complex. It doesn’t matter if her first single from the album “Sapokanikan” is only five minutes; it starts with the statement “The cause is Ozymandian.” Besides being a striking opening line, this one already requires us to start doing some research.

Sapokanikan was a Native American village that existed on present-day Manhattan in New York before the arrival of the Europeans. In the music video, Newsom starts by taking a jaunt through Greenwich Village, flashing smiles all around. At first, it seems cliché — until you realize what she’s really singing about. Her happiness turns to distress, darkness falls, sirens blare, and she cries, “The city is gone,” imploring us to “look and despair.” She’s not talking about New York. She’s talking about Sapokanikan. The poem referenced by Newsom — Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” — tells of how legacies eventually fade. “Look and despair” is right. This song is not for the faint of heart.

As you can tell from “Sapokanikan,” this is an album dealing with loss in various forms. In particular, Newsom explores the relationship between the joy of love and the awareness and fear of death and loss. On the final song, she presents what could be read as the album’s thesis: “Love is not a symptom of time / Time is just a symptom of love.” Love brings with it the knowledge of its own inevitable end. For Newsom, time becomes real when you experience love, because, as she once stated in an interview, “there is something you cannot bear to lose.”

I’m not going to try and definitively assert “the meaning” of this record. Two reasons: Firstly, that would be a dissertation, not an album review; and secondly, like all great literature, this work can be understood in an infinite number of ways. You’re just going to have to give “Divers” a listen. Yes, it’s dense, but part of the joy of listening to Joanna Newsom is sifting through all the complexities, letting the music and winding words wash over you and finding your own meaning in the infinite depth of Newsom’s craft.


Contact Tyler Dunston at tdunston ‘at’

Tyler Dunston is a music writer for the Stanford Daily. He is a junior majoring in English and minoring in Art Practice. To contact him, e-mail tdunston 'at'

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